Returning to California: Post-Camp Stories

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and moved into several concentration camps. This dark time in history which lasted from February 19, 1942, to March 20, 1946, has been examined in several books, movies, and television shows. Historian Greg Robinson once wrote that “the official roundup of some 120,000 American citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast and their subsequent confinement in government camps … represents the single most-documented subject in Asian American studies and a vital theme of popular debate.”

However, regarded as “worse than camp” by many, the immediate post-incarceration period is often overlooked in Japanese American history, and not much has been produced looking at this time. The war had ended, but returning families faced continued hostility and backlash. Purposely excluded from the booming post-war economy through discriminatory housing policies and a less than friendly job market all while reeling from the psychological after-effects of their wartime ordeal, these Japanese Americans struggled to remake their lives in mid-century America.

On June 29, JANM’s Collection Manager Kristen Hayashi and Densho Content Director Brian Niiya will take a closer look at this post-war period during a talk and presentation stemming from an interview project they are working on. When asked about this time, Niiya said, “In many of our (Densho) interviews, this period is often skipped over due to time constraints or to get to the redress movement or parallels with current events. And yet, this period contains many fascinating stories and is crucial to understanding the state of Japanese American communities today and how we got here.”

In the presentation, Hayashi and Niiya will be focusing on a particular slice of this story, those who returned to California and especially to Southern California. Kristen will present materials from her Ph.D. dissertation, which explores various aspects of the return to Los Angeles. Resettlement in different parts of the country offered unique issues, but Los Angeles provides a good snapshot of the post-war experience as a whole. For years before World War II, Los Angeles had one of the country’s largest populations of Japanese Americans. After the war and without a place to live, they sought refuge in hostels set up at Christian and Buddhist churches. Others found housing in trailer parks set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority.

According to Hayashi, “Although the WRA intended to disperse the population widely across the continental United States, the federal agency that oversaw the “relocation,” eventually went against their plan on the eve of the closure of the camps. Without a long range plan to assist those that remained in the War Relocation Centers, most of whom were without employment or housing prospects, the WRA staff determined that they would send remaining incarcerees back to their point of origin. For many, this was Los Angeles.” While some welcomed the returnees, others viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat, demonstrating the hardship they faced integrating back into society. Also being presented are interviews with several JANM volunteers that explore the recurring themes of returning to both rural and urban areas.

For more information and to RSVP please visit this link. Also, museum members are invited to an exclusive reception with Kristen Hayashi and Brian Niiya before their discussion at 2 p.m. RSVP here.

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